Living in France is like taking a perpetual French etiquette exam, without ever having been allowed to see a textbook. There are so many rules and social codes here, the dos and don'ts of simply drinking coffee wouldn't fit on a pair of tablets.
Just like trying to keep track of when to use an aigu rather than a grave accent to adorn my vowels, it's hard to keep track of when its okay to drink milk with my coffee (only before 11:00 a.m.) or just how many courses I am supposed to order for lunch (minimum of three).
And while I find it hard to fathom why anyone cares if I want to have a little milk with my coffee in the evening, I can absolutely get behind a civilized two hour lunch complete with an appetizer, entrée, wine, dessert and coffee.
Confounding as it often is, part of what I love about living in France, and what the idea of France conjures in the minds of many, is precisely this adherence to ritual and culture. All of the quirky rules and formalities here give a sense that people are doing the same things -- in the same places -- that they have been done for centuries. This is precisely what I find so fascinating about this country.
Woody Allen hit the nail on the head in his film Midnight in Paris. As much as current day France has to offer -- and don't get me wrong, it offers quite a bit -- for many, the real magic of France is the romance of the past.
Who might have walked on these streets, or sipped a glass of wine in this cafe before me? What stunning piece of art or brilliant work of literature was created right here where I am sitting? These are the questions that fill my mind in France.
And while stereotypes are often lazy and shallow, sometimes the utter Frenchness of everything here strikes me as unreal. I don't think I'll ever get used to being greeted as Madame or Mademoiselle by literally every person in every shop I set foot into. It seems so formal and old fashioned I find it hard to say it back. But that really is how people greet one another here.
The social norms that the French adhere to create a sense of belonging and, if you know the rules, it actually makes life easier, but I have learned from countless missteps, that if you breach the social code by, for example, walking into a shop without saying not just bonjour, but bonjour Madame or Monsieur, you will immediately be cast as a rude slob and the service will be bad to nonexistent (no matter how many merci beaucoups, au revoirs, and bonne journées you offer up after the fact).
On the other hand, if you manage to figure out the rules and follow them, like making sure to squeak out those little golden words (even pronounced badly), you will have found the key that unlocks an abundance of French charm and helpfulness.
This is what the French call savoir-vivre. And knowing how to live here doesn't just mean enjoying good wine, fabulous cheese, and a 35 hour work week (although those things are important), it also means following the entrenched rules of etiquette that pretty much everyone accepts.
For example, if you look closely as you walk along the sun-dappled streets of Nice, you'll realize, there is something missing. It's almost imperceptible, but something is a little off.
And then its hits you: not one person has a cup full of steaming hot coffee sloshing around in their hand. The ever-present to go cups that have overtaken every US city don't seem to exist here (nor does Starbucks).
And really, why would you want to carry your coffee around, burning your tongue and spilling it all over your hand, when it's totally acceptable to sit at any one of the many charming cafés and order a café express (what the French call an espresso) and linger for an hour or more without so much as a impatient glance from the server?
I have, however, found an exception to the no coffee on the go rule (as with the impenetrable rules of French grammar, for almost every rule, there is an exception).
During the break between classes one morning, I spotted a young woman crossing the street drinking from a small red paper cup. It resembled its American cousins with a white plastic lid to sip from, only it was a fraction of the size.
I looked in the direction from where she had come and a few minutes later, I saw a businessman emerge also clutching a red paper cup. I had to see for myself, so I traced their steps and a couple blocks from the school, I came a cross a little boulangerie with a stack of said cups sitting right there next to the espresso machine. It is quite possibly the only place in the city that offers their coffee to go.
Once I got up to the counter though, I lost my nerve, and ordered mine to stay in. I think the French mindset might be starting to take hold.